June 17, 2014: Lifta
The gunfire stops around midnight and we sleep well at the Yaffa Cultural Center in the Balata Refugee Camp. In the morning we learn that the Israeli military made an early incursion into the camp, arresting about ten young men, beating one and trashing a house. This is apparently so normal that children are smiling, holding hands and walking to school in their blue and white uniforms, men are opening their shops, and women hurry by. There is an air of total normalcy in a totally abnormal place.
We cruise through a variety of checkpoints including the once onerous Huwarra checkpoint which is totally deserted. I watch the signs: Pisgat Zeev, Newe Yalakov, Moshe Dyan Street, the east and west-ness of Jerusalem is no longer about location but rather about where exactly Arabs and Jews are currently living. We meet up with Umar Ighbariyah from the Israeli organization Zochrot, (Remembering) for a poignant, powerful tour of Lifta. The sign at the top of the valley says En Leftoah (a Biblical reference to a place that may or may not have existed here) with Lifta (in parentheses). Lifta is an example of the estimated 650 depopulated Palestinian villages from 1948, but every town has its own particular tragic history. Many are unaware that the depopulations continued into the early 1950s (after the war was over) and included Zacharia and al-Majdal Asqalan. Roman tax documents document the existence of Lifta from the 12th century, it was liberated from the Turks by Saladin in 1189, and later occupied by the Ottomans, the British, and then…
In the British partition plan in 1947, Lifta was supposed to be part of the international zone consisting of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but the Zionist forces wanted an open passage between Jaffa and Jerusalem. Lifta is much greater than the classic photos of stone houses hanging on to the hillside; it actually extended up near Jaffa Street, the walls of the Old City, Mount Scopus, and included land that now houses the Knesset, the Prime Minister’s House, the High Court, and part of Hebrew University. Hana, one of our tour leaders, notes that her family still has the deed for that land. This is no longer a theoretical historical event.
In January 1948 (before the beginning of the war), members of the Irgun attacked a Lifta café, killing six and injuring seven. Frightened families retreated into the center of the village. This was a large wealthy town of 3,000 people with extensive agriculture, gardens, pools, and irrigation. The following month there were more attacks by the Irgun and Haganah and gradually the families fled in terror mostly to East Jerusalem and Ramallah. After ’48, subsequent inhabitants included Jews from Arab countries placed on the “periphery” (after all the Ashkenazim would not live here!), Jewish squatters, drug users, even a Jewish terror cell that planned to explode the Al Aqsa Mosque and did successfully bomb a bus to Hebron.
We stand at the top of the valley avoiding rumbling trucks at a massive construction site that is destined to be a fast train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, there are two tunnels in the distant hills that will soon connect; interestingly the tracks are supposed to go through Imwas which is our next destination. Below this site is the continued “secret” construction of the bunker designed for government officials in the case of a nuclear holocaust. There is something supremely ironic about this location for that. (Will the whole country someday be a disappeared village?) Turning slowly 360 degrees, Umar points out the locations of other former villages such as Colunia, Deir Yassin, Ein Karem as well as the Jewish settlement of Romama, and the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem and Biddu in the West Bank. (forgive my spelling errors, it is close to midnight here and my spelling brain is sleeping) Umar explains that the Jewish settlement of Ramot which is on the way to Ramallah, is actually located in the ever expanding Jerusalem, 90% built on Palestinian land. This area of patchwork claims and identities is both strategically located, and in 1948 was perched on the dangerous armistice border with Jordan. The border is now marked with a line of Jewish National Fund forests. Ben Gurion is reported to have said with satisfaction, “The area… is clean of strangers [Arabs].”
We start the hike down the dusty rocky valley, gracious stone ruins with magnificent arches, domes, and towering saber cactus still stand as living testaments to the past. I can almost feel the women with their bread, the men returning from the olive orchards, the children washing in the pools, the ghosts of Lifta breathing life into painful memories. Fig trees, expansive oaks, fruit trees bear witness as well. We meet an older mustached man, beaming with happiness. He is from here, but now lives in San Diego and is exploring the park with his nephew who has just been released from 13 years in prison after being arrested for involvement with the PFLP. We watch him bear hug an olive tree and start singing and dancing. He tells us he wishes he lived here so he could invite us to his home for dinner and reminds Hana in Arabic not to say anything bad about Jews! His joy is infectious and his nephew appears quietly pleased and supportive. We learn that the nephew was in a prison near Gaza; recently he was awakened in the night, put into a jeep, and dropped off in the Negev. He was found by Bedouins and gradually made his way home. He had never seen a cell phone. His mother and father were both arrested when he was released so that they would have difficulty searching for him. Does this sound strangely barbaric to anyone in the modern democratic State of Israel?
Young ultra-orthodox boys run down the path to the pools which date back to the Romans, for a refreshing dip and splash. I summon up my tolerance but all I can imagine is that (even in their brightly colored underwear and wet payus, the tzizit, tallit, black hats, and dark suits hanging from trees) they are from some other planet; perhaps a lost lunar landing that does not see or appreciate the history and treasured beauty of this sacred space. Or is that sensibility entirely lost when a person believes so deeply in Zionism and the path Israel has taken? Do we even have a common language? Do we even see the same people?
The city plans to throw out the remaining squatters and drug users living in the ruins, and build a large complex of luxury hotels and malls. I am sure the ads may be appearing in the New York Times in the near future, but the plans are frozen in the courts. White butterflies flit by as if to say, you are planning what?
Umar’s family history dates back to a village near Nazareth; attacked in 1948, villagers fled to the forests for two years, a few houses were destroyed and vandalized, the cows were stolen, the sugar and oil trashed, one donkey was killed, (soldiers will be soldiers after all). The families were then allowed to return but in one of those ironic moments, at the Rhodes agreement with Jordan, the Israelis wanted more land near their armistice line, so the King of Jordan dipped his thumb in ink, pressed it onto the map, and poof, Umar’s village was included in the state of Israel. 45,000 Palestinians were annexed in this fashion and then had the privilege of Israeli citizenship and military rule until 1966. The French representative reportedly took his green pen and drew the armistice line, and hence the Green Line. Colonial powers can be so artistic and thoughtful!
Working with Zochrot, Umar notes that the media and the public has a much greater awareness of the Palestinian nakba, although many feel that it was justified, war is hell, etc etc. I suspect that the ghosts feel otherwise. They watch every Nakba Day, when inhabitants from Lifta now living in East Jerusalem are allowed to clean up the cemetery, honor their dead, and try to save some remnants of this magnificent city gone to ruin.
Alice Rothchild MD, is Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School. She serves on the steering committee for American Jews for a Just Peace- Boston, and has worked with medical delegations to Israel and the Occupied Territories with the AJJP Health and Human Rights Project. She is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience (Pluto, 2007; 2010) and director of the 2013 documentary Voices Across the Divide.